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Atlético’s biggest positional problem is not at forward

Finding a reliable partner for Diego Godín has become a major headache for Cholo Simeone.

Atletico Madrid v FC Barcelona - Copa Del Rey Semi-final: First Leg Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

A big hole was left at Atlético Madrid when this stalwart left the club for pastures new. His departure opened the door for several replacements - quality players with good track records for the most part - to try their luck at softening the blow struck by his exit. However, none of the potential stand-ins made the vacated position his own, and Atlético have been left wanting since.

If you thought that lede was in reference to Diego Costa, you’d be wrong.

Miranda left Atlético for Inter Milan in June 2015. The Brazilian was about to turn 31 and, due to injury, had split time in the previous season with José Giménez. The fiery 20-year-old had burst onto the scene to form with Diego Godín a solid Uruguayan partnership in the center of Diego Simeone’s impenetrable defense, and Miranda had become viewed as expendable. Since Giménez was set to start week in and week out, Atleti went out and bought Stefan Savić from Fiorentina. With the progress of canterano Lucas Hernández, center back was set to be a loaded position for the foreseeable future even in Miranda’s absence.

Let’s fast-forward about 18 months. Atleti’s defense is more vulnerable than ever before in the Simeone Era, and the biggest reason for that is the lack of a reliable partner for Godín.

Over the course of the 2015-16 season, Savić emerged as El Cholo’s preferred option for a couple reasons: he was a safe, steady presence when Godín bombed forward and offered a counter to Giménez’ occasionally brilliant but erratic form. The 26-year-old was monolithic against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals and was possibly Atlético’s best player in the Champions League final. This season, however, Savić has been a disaster. Since his red card vs. Málaga on Oct. 29, the Montenegrin has been very shaky, losing his position often and engendering little trust in 1v1 situations. This has been evident in the big games, such as the Nov. 19 Madrid Derby and Wednesday’s Copa del Rey semifinal first leg, in which Luis Suárez wrecked him on the way to scoring the opening goal.

Giménez was second-choice to Savić from the start of the season, and as such, has played just seven league games. Now 22, Joséma’s huge potential remains, but so does his headless chicken act. His speed and athleticism can be awe-inspiring - and his brain farts and nagging injuries can be immensely frustrating. Simeone’s attempts to get him to channel better his energy led to a positional switch, with Joséma now sometimes playing as a holding midfielder.

Lucas has been regarded as the fourth option, even though there has been little wrong with his play. Despite big-time performances last season and steady outings this season, the Frenchman has found himself as an injury/suspension stand-in or deputizing for Filipe Luís when the left back gets a rare day off. (And if recent allegations are true, he may find himself doing even less in red and white.)

In 2015-16, the wealth of options next to one of the world’s best defenders was a blessing for Simeone and Atlético. In 2016-17, it’s been more of a curse. With Savić in poor form, Giménez getting better but an injury concern and Lucas buried on the depth chart, the revolving door opposite Godín has become a major issue. And I argue that it is more troubling than Atleti’s annual forward woes. Just one goal from Antoine Griezmann and co. used to be enough to sew up games; the issues at forward now (and they do exist, don’t get me wrong) are magnified because Atleti are conceding consistently - and conceding multiple goals, as has been the case in three of the past four games.

Below, courtesy of the Squawka Comparison Matrix, is a side-by-side comparison of Cholo’s options at center back:

In summation: Godín is still awesome. Savic’s reputation can only carry him so far; Giménez is pretty clearly the top choice to play next to his compatriot and has been superior to Savić in several categories, most notably in the air. However, his recurring adductor injury and Simeone’s uneasiness about his ability to keep a cool head for 90 minutes prevent him from getting a run in the team. Lucas is criminally underutilized, as Cholo mysteriously does not prefer him to either Savić or Giménez. Eventually, he may be left with no choice but to turn to the 20-year-old if neither one nails down a spot in the XI.

To overturn the 2-1 deficit it faces in the Copa semifinals, make another deep run in the Champions League and achieve the stated goal of finishing third - or crack the top four, period - Atlético have to unlock the center back partnership that won’t leak goals. In six games against the top seven teams in LaLiga, Atleti have conceded a whopping 12 times, and that will not do in what is shaping up to be a crucial four months for footballing and financial reasons. While los colchoneros have proven capable of thriving on a goal per game, they cannot survive while conceding a goal per game. The search for Miranda’s successor rolls on.